My father's Circles of Life
All places have their stories, some remain unchanged. Some may be places you miss on a map but stop a while, you will find a different story lurking within. Look up Rayagada, a district in southwest Orissa, created only in 1992. Statistics will tell you of its largely adivasi population, and the mineral resources it is rich in, chiefly bauxite. As a district, it receives government attention chiefly for two reasons: that it is part of the 'red corridor' where Naxalites pose a grave security threat, and in large part related to this, Rayagada is one of India's 250 most backward districts.
In the early 1960s, it was part of Koraput district, having once been part of the kingdom of Jeypore in the 18th century. The bauxite even at this time was largely unexplored and there wasn't anything like a Naxalite presence. It might have taken a person of greater intuition to figure out that conditions for their emergence did exist, but my father was a junior police officer who served in Rayagada as its assistant superintendent of police. He knew little when he reached Rayagada after a long drive that took almost an entire day, along the east coast; from Berhampur in Odisha to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh and then travelling up Parvatipuram and into Koraput. A circuitous journey that followed the hard cemented roads. The largely adivasi population of Rayagada, a subdivision of the larger district included the Kondas and Sauras and they owned little land. Most of the land had come to be owned by those who once ruled on behalf of the rulers of Jeypore, and over time, as indebtedness came to trouble them too, it was the grain merchants and moneylenders, that is, the Telugu speaking Komatis who held the land.
In one of the early photos in my father's albums, I see him with his batch-mates in an impressive yellow brown building with extensive lawns. It's a building familiar to me as well. The Teen Murti Bhavan now serves as the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, but at that time it was the Prime Minister's residence and having finished their initial training period at Mussoorie, my father was part of his batch that went to have high tea with the Prime Minister. It was all pukka in a British sense and my father as a young police officer was suitably in awe, remembering how Nehru stopped to shake hands and then regally sat in the centre as everyone flanked him for the official photo; a copy of this was given to everyone.
The next day they were to leave for their respective postings, the states to which they were allotted. Suddenly India seemed a bigger country than he had imagined it all along, it didn't matter to him the loss of a home in East Bengal, now Bangladesh. 'Almost the entire geography of the country went past me in a night's journey, and almost everything the world contained passed in those hours', he said later.
After a few months in Berhampur in Odisha's east, my father moved to Koraput. No trains ran there and my father drove up from Berhampur in a second-hand Landmaster purchased from another senior police officer. As he drove down asphalted roads, past grassy knolls, with immense bare patches of ground that often appeared showing up red soil, news of his progress in his sky blue Landmaster was relayed via wireless from one police outpost to another. It was these thanas and police outposts that made up his jurisdiction; from Rayagada he had to make tours to these places to follow up on cases.
One late monsoon week, my father found himself in Padampur station. He had driven up to Bikrampur, and after crossing the river Vamsadhara in an open river boat, he had ridden up in a bullock cart to Gudari. It was another four hour journey in the same cart to Padampur. It was October, the rains had overstayed, and the inspector told my father of an incident reported only the other day. Not too far away in an adivasi hamlet near the main village of Thumbaguda, a woman from the Saura tribe. had lost her baby. It had happened following her altercation with the moneylender who had come demanding his money that morning. It was money the woman's husband apparently owed him and he had been missing for over two months now.
In the morning, apart from the old, infirm and the nursing women, the hamlet was largely emptied of most of its able-bodied people. Everyone worked in the paddy fields some way off, or where ragi was grown. This was the coarse grain that along with tamarind pulp formed the staple food of the Sauras. No matter the circumstances, my father knew the matter needed looking into. Only a couple of years ago, a landlord called Hari Mishra had been killed and that incident was still fresh on most people's minds.
The adivasis of this region had suffered when formal land systems were introduced from the early 19th century onwards. Despite the enactment of the Agency Tracts Interest and Land Transfer Act in 1917 to prevent the transfer of lands from adivasis to non-adivasis, most land transfers had already taken place before this act's passing. The land survey begun from 1951 onward also left most of the hill tribes out of its purview. The 'plane table' method of surveying does not record slopes greater than nine degrees, and thus left out the knolls and low hills that held the traditional agricultural lands of the hill tribes, and this included some Sauras as well. Thus the traditional land rights of the community over land were taken over by the state, as happened in many instances.
A decade before. there had been the 'bhoo satyagraha' when the adivasis in certain parts of Koraput had organised peacefully to win their land back. In 1961 two years before my father's time in Rayagada, violence had broken out in a village called Balikhamar not too far away from Thumbaguda. It was the unfortunate consequence of long years of unsuccessful agitation waged by the adivasis of Balikhamar village against the landlord Hari Mishra. The adivasis had tried in vain to win their lands back but even a court decision where their case had languished for eight years between 1952 to 1960, went against them. The next year, the adivasis forcefully occupied their land and Hari Mishra was killed in the ensuing fracas.
It was evening and my father decided to set off for the village. A buffalo cart was once again pressed into service. They had to take a dirt track road, following the course of the river Vamsadhara, that in this time was in spate and ran erratic. Stalks of bamboo tied up with rough sisal made up a makeshift shelter on the cart. Burlap sacks were placed inside to lessen the discomforts of the journey that promised to be a long muddy one. They went past copses of trees that turned dry in the summer but now drooped lushly over the land, heavy with the noises of the night. The dim lantern light hanging from the yoke turned the damp gravel shiny in places and these spots danced, shifted, and moved with every step of the bullocks.
The slap of mud rose high and higher still as the bullocks picked up pace. Speckles slapped hard against the thin bamboo walls. The moon rose high, moving with the sound of hooves on mud. The smell of animals, squelchy water and damp grass filled mingled with the desultory conversation of the carters and the inspector and the wind that blew across all this. My father heard them talking as he drifted to sleep and when he awoke, it was an unfamiliar dialect that reached his ears.
The night had only deepened, and it was the villagers who were now on their way to the police outpost. The inspector who spoke across the bamboo walls told my father that they were adamant that a complaint be lodged. The Saura dialect is now an endangered language. It is one of the Munda family of languages, again a branch of the Austro-Asiatic language family, spoken across a vast region and is related in a distant way to the Vietnamese and Khmer spoken in southeast Asia. The Saura script called the Sorang Sompeng was developed only in 1936 by Mangei Gamang, though it is written also in Odia and Telugu.
My father knew he was going to see a people he knew nothing about. A people who owned nothing, even their language had a script created for them later. He hoped they would understand that in turn he too had come to understand.
At journey's end, he found the adivasis waiting; some were keeping guard over the grave. It hadn't been made very deep, my father could see how the earth had been disturbed and it's still uneven state. The woman narrated her story to him again. Her voice had that hoarse cracked edge, her eyelids drooped, everything holding signs of her long wait and fatigue. She had protested, insisted as before on her husband's absence but the moneylender had been disbelieving. He had ransacked the house. Every house had a front veranda, a narrow inner room with no windows and a walled-in back courtyard. Then when she had no other answer to give, he had struck her with his short stick. Traditionally the upper castes at least in the south have moved around with a short club like stick, around three feet in length, bent at one end, and called a 'valai tadi'.
The blow struck her on the upper arm and it hurt the baby who died from his injuries, The man had hurriedly left, leaving some money so he hoped she would bury the infant immediately.
A messenger was sent back with my father's hurriedly written note. A magistrate's authorization was needed to have the infant's body exhumed. They waited several hours, with my father seated on a low stool, as the fire died away and whispered conversations did too. For some moments silence fell. And my father saw the clouds scudding past and you could almost hear the wind pulling them along.
To my father, as he later described it, it seemed he was the only man alive in those all alone moments that stretched, and it took on an immense significance for him. Across the baby's grave, the mud shifted ever so lightly and he rose and prodded with his stick. and all was quiet again.
At first light, the infant's body was brought out. After a few initial strokes of their scythes, the men-folk used fingers gentle as possible, and held the baby up, the mud still on his eyes and all over that small crimped body. One look was enough to confirm what the woman had said.
He wrote up his report, the moneylender now accused of manslaughter was arrested. The matter went to court and after a few weeks in jail, he was out on bail. The moneylender had his men meet my father in his office in Rayagada. It was always discreet persuasion, they hoped my father would drop the matter. The matter had no chance in court, they said. And then who knew whose baby it was; they led polygamous lives anyway, they said too. And every time the case came up, my father went and deposed, his statement never veering. The woman had sustained a grievous loss and it was the moneylender who was responsible.
My father was transferred a few months later. A routine thing as it would be all through his career. And the case file too began its long arduous journey from lower courts to a higher one. Perhaps my father in the natural course of things even forgot about it. It was seven years later, almost another time, in another place, a lawyer friend showed my father a local law journal and translated for him the high court judgement that had finally been delivered on the case. The man had been convicted after all. It had taken as long as the earlier case relating to adivasi land but this time justice had prevailed on the adivasis' side.
My father's working life took him from small places to bigger ones. In Rayagada, the story remained much the same. Or perhaps the adivasi voice was no longer heard, even disregarded. Over the years, first in 1967 and then increasingly in more recent times, there were uprisings against powerful landlords, particularly in the Gudari area. The area saw some 'development' as four dams, two industrial plants and commercial plantations came up; this only saw adivasi displacement from lands they had cultivated, and for long there was no rehabilitation policy in place. The consequences of this are all too clear.
My father told me his story thirty years later. The newspaper in his hands must have recounted an incident of recent Naxal violence. 'It just needs everyone in the system to be fair', he said.
'Even if things take too long?' I asked.
'I don't know how long all this violence will take to resolve,' he said in turn.
The newspapers tell the story in the same way always; one of violence and exploitation. My father's story gave it a human shape, a tragedy that has only intensified over the decades, with the two sides, the state and the adivasis on clearly different lines. It was a story my father had also forgotten about, choosing to tell it almost as an afterthought. I think of the many reports, many commissions set up to look into the matter and my father as a junior police officer just doing his duty. It made him, a quiet unassuming bureaucrat, a hero at least to his children. And heroes are also those who remain unsung.
Before this story, with only the photo that preceded it. I remember asking my father if Nehru had looked sad.
'Why?' my father had looked puzzled.
'There was the war with China...' I said, and then I didn't ask him if Nehru missed Edwina, the person he had written all those letters to and who had died in 1960.
'Nehru looked fresh and he had a rose in his long coat. He asked us to serve the nation.'
After a pause, my father added, ' And we tried to.'
More about Anu Kumar
Anu's most recent novels are 'It Takes a Murder' and 'Inspector Angre and the Pizza Delivery Boy'. She recently moved once again and is hoping to find the many definitions of dislocation through this blog. Her website not always regularly updated but located securely in cyberspace is anukumar.org.